A very good friend of mine once asked me what my favorite painting was. It took a little bit of thinking. Favorite artist…that’s easy. Winslow Homer. But choosing from among his works was a little challenging. In the end, though, there’s one that really grabs me, and it does so every time I look at it.
It’s called “Veteran in a New Field” and it depicts a Union soldier just home from the Civil War. He’s dropped his uniform coat, canteen and haversack (you can see them in the bottom right hand corner of the image), immediately picked up a scythe and set to mowing. You like to think that he took a moment to say hello to the family, but I don’t really get that impression.
I love this painting. I’m a Civil War reenactor (which you have to be just a bit cracked to do, I suppose) and I’ve always admired Winslow Homer’s work for its accuracy. He sketched for Harpers Weekly during the war and tried to work in accurate detail when it came to the soldiers he drew. A valuable resource for us now. In addition to his sketches, he also did some paintings of soldier life. Good stuff. But this one is his best.
He painted it just a few months after Appomattox. The war was over and hundreds of thousands of men were returning home. How would they adjust given the things they’d seen and experienced? Would it be possible to go back to life as usual? The same questions our veterans face to this day.
I guarantee you, look up any professional publication that describes this work and you will read the same thing over and over. The main theme of the painting, most argue, is that Homer is comparing the soldier to a harvester of men. The fallen grain comparable to the rows of dead you see in Matthew Brady’s photographs. The scythe, so they say, is the weapon of the grim reaper and this is what the soldier has become.
Rubbish. Forgive me while I wax a little poetical, but there’s a golden field here, stretching off as far as the eye can see. A cloudless blue sky. This man’s whole life is ahead of him. And though an endless field of grain may seem daunting, he takes off his uniform coat, drops his gear, picks up the scythe and carries on. This painting is about hope, fortitude and determination to keep striving even in the wake of severe trial.
No matter what’s going on in life, keep harvesting.